Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Three Rebellions: Foreword

 

This Foreword was written by John Rule in mid-2009 and was included in the first edition but I decided not to use it in the second edition that came out in 2017.  It seemed less appropriate then as John had unfortunately died in the interim.  Re-reading it recently, I decided to include in on my blogs in part as a tribute to a historian of rare ability and also because it seemed more relevent to me at the end of 2020 than it had three years earlier.

'Three Rebellions Canada 1837-1836, South Wales 1839 and Australia 1854 is indeed an ambitious study telling its story in around a thousand pages of description and analysis supported throughout with illustrations and maps. It would take a determined reader to read and digest a work of such substance from cover to cover, although one hopes many will do so. The book has, however been constructed in ways that support different approaches to its reading by treating each rebellion separately but with a consistent division into chapters and headed paragraphs within them linked to a front-placed twelve-page table of contents and detailed index.  The three rebellions have been well chosen. All were in different ways a consequence of British imperial rule, although the nature of that rule was obviously felt in different ways and through different forms of pressure. The outcome of these challenges to British imperial authority was in each case defeat. That is why they were ‘rebellions’. Had these armed direct actions achieved significant constitutional change in their own time, then history would have come to record them as ‘revolutions. To echo a famous phrase of E. P. Thompson, the rebels if failing in their own time ‘still need rescuing from the enormous condescension of posterity’.

            There is at least a measure of irony in noting that progress to democratic constitutional government was to be more rapid in Canada and Australia than in Britain. In all three cases of rebellion, sections of the local working class - iron workers and coalminers in Newport; agricultural and related workers in the two Canadas, and gold diggers at the Ballarat confrontation in Victoria - were the main source of support.  All three rebellions had local economic grievances, some of which like the campaign against Chinese immigrants to the goldfields were hardly progressive.  Violence was present to a degree in each case, both by the rebels and delivered in the form of reactive repression by the authorities.  At Ballarat in 1854 of 150 diggers who refused to surrender their defence of the now celebrated Eureka Stockade, twenty-five were killed and thirty wounded by the charging troops of whose own number four were killed and eleven wounded.

            All this seems rather negative, Brown however is eager to stress the positive contributions made by the rebellions. Reform was advanced by what can be viewed as a ‘Peterloo effect’ by analogy with the Manchester reform meeting in 1819 at which cavalry troops charged the reformers.  Like the Peterloo massacre, later reformers celebrated these three rebellions, so dramatic that it could not be forgotten by reformers or authority.  An Australian poet later celebrated the heroism at the Eureka Stockade as among the most significant moments for the subsequent achievement of radical democracy in Australia:

 

Yet ere the year was over,

Freedom rolled in like a flood:

They gave us all we asked for

When we asked for it in blood.

      What was being asked for?  As Richard Brown argues essentially it was the kind of state and constitution sought by the Chartists. At a mass meeting of 10,000 gold miners a Reform League was established and pledged to agitate for a fair and just representation; manhood suffrage; no property qualification for the legislative councils; payment of members; and short duration of parliament.. These demands were of course those of the Charter for which John Frost had led his Welsh rebels at Newport fifteen years before.

            During several decades of leading the subject’s teaching Richard Brown found the time and energy to produce around fifty writings and broadcasts over a wide range of historical subjects.  Many of these contributions are concerned with the teaching of history as an Advanced Level subject; others are textbooks including, for example, a two volume history published in 1991, Economy and Society in Modern Britain 1700-1850 and Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850. This was followed by more specialist works on radicalism, revolution and reform and in 1998 on Chartism. He tells us that this last subject became his special interest as a teacher and as a scholar. It is not then surprising that it was to an ambitious project involving the great nineteenth-century working-class movement that he has dedicated the time bestowed by his recent retirement. Richard Brown has written a well documented, thoroughly argued and especially interesting book.'

 

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